On the last Wednesday in March, Cal Athletics hosted the Endowed Scholarship Dinner, an annual event that brings together donors who have endowed scholarships and the student-athletes who are the recipients of their generosity. Held at the Claremont Hotel, Club and Spa, the evening began with a pre-dinner reception where student-athletes and donors mingled in one of the resort's panoramic salons.
In one corner of the room, two four-minute milers stood side-by-side, chatting. Cal alum Don Bowden was the first American to break the once unthinkable track barrier, running a 3:58.7 mile in 1957. Senior Michael Coe set the Cal school record in the mile, posting a 3:56.18 back in 2009. Monte Upshaw, a Cal Hall of Famer and the patriarch of a family of Cal track & field athletes, also joined the group alongside senior distance runner Kari Karlsson, the recipient of the Don Bowden Track & Field Scholarship. Runner Steve Sodaro, who is receives the scholarship endowed by Upshaw, was absent from the group.
In the back of the room, Luella Lilly, who served as Cal's director of women's athletics and is a member of the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame, conversed with a group of women's basketball players. The Dr. Luella Lilly Endowed Scholarship is currently awarded to softball player Jolene Henderson, but Henderson was off with her team playing against Pacific in Stockton and couldn't attend the banquet.
In many instances, the donors were mingling with the student-athletes who hold the scholarship that bears their name. Sophomore basketball player Brandon Smith stood talking with Patty Bonnstetter, the woman behind the Gene Bonnstetter Memorial Scholarship.
Patty and Gene had been regulars at Cal basketball games since the Kevin Johnson days until Gene passed away in 2001.
"We didn't have children, so when he died, I thought 'Oh dear. What do I do?'" Patty said, explaining her motivation for setting up an endowed scholarship. "Then I decided - I am going to set up a basketball scholarship. His sport, my school." The Gene Bonnstetter Memorial Scholarship goes to a point guard for the men's basketball team.
"Brian Weathers was the first recipient," Patty recalled. "He wasn't a point guard, but Gene had loved the way he played the game, the hustle he showed, so that was a great first recipient. Jerome Randle and Nikola Knezevic also were recipients." This season, Smith is the beneficiary . He intently listened to Patty explain her reasons for the scholarship and was touched when Patty handed him a program from Gene's memorial that included Gene's life story. She wanted Smith to know about the man whose name is on the scholarship he holds. Smith was equally interested in learning about Gene Bonnstetter.
Other donors, such as Carol Kavanagh-Clarke, have endowed scholarships in two sports. Sophomore basketball player Talia Caldwell and women's gymnast Alex Leggitt both have scholarships endowed by Cavanagh-Clarke. Leggitt was a walk-on for the gymnastics team prior to this season. Her face lit up with excitement when she was seated at dinner next to the woman who provides the funding for her brand-new scholarship.
All of the student-athletes, whether meeting the people behind their scholarships for the first time or reuniting with them, were appreciative of the opportunities and experiences made possible by the endowed scholarships. Senior basketball player Rachelle Federico had met the woman behind her scholarship, Mary Dee Karp, several times. Karp set up a scholarship that was earmarked for a female Latina and Federico has been the recipient for the past four years.
"She stops by the office sometimes and I always make sure I get a chance to say hi," Federico said. "She is always talking Spanish with me and it is always real fun."
Federico also feels a sense of pride knowing that she is representing someone by holding a named scholarship.
"It is a humbling experience," she said. "You try to present yourself a little bit better, knowing what the award is for. It's sort of like a mom figure, looking over your shoulder and making sure you do the right thing. It has been a great experience."
Those athletes who didn't meet the donors during the reception had another chance at dinner where the donors were seated alongside their scholarship athletes.
The evening's stated purpose was a time to celebrate the achievements of the endowed scholar-athletes and honor the generosity of those who make that possible. For some, like Patty Bonnstetter, it was a time to be able to share the love and warmth she felt for her husband, Gene. For others, it was a time to swap sports stories. For all of the athletes, it was a night of smiles and laughter and most importantly, a night of appreciation and countless thank yous.